It’s back to school week and I notice social media is full of proud parents posting photos of their nearest and dearest ready for school. School – the best days of our lives. Is this really true for everyone?
Behind the smiles, smart uniforms and oversized bags, whichever year your child is about to enter, you can be certain there are young people for whom this may be a day of dread. Not because they dislike learning or are overwhelmed by the expectations to follow, but because they worry they don’t fit in. They fear whispered comment, social isolation or blatant bullying just for who they are.
These are the young people whose sexuality or gender does not conform to the accepted ‘norm’. For them, adolescence can be experienced very differently from their peers who might fit in with the expectations around gender or sexuality others have for them. For lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT+) students, the school environment can be a minefield and a lonely time.
In the Jewish educational community, there has been much discussion recently about the Ofsted requirement to teach about alternative lifestyles and whether this is something that should be insisted upon for faith-based schools.
But put that discussion aside and focus on the young person in your school, in your community and in your social crowd. If we really believe every child has the right to thrive as well as receive the best education, then as school leaders we have a responsibility to address this issue head-on.
Young people struggle with a range of mental health and wellbeing issues and some of these can be related to discovering their own sexuality and gender, and fear of how this will be received. Young people who are part of the Orthodox community often feel a heightened level of stigma and additional pressures to conform due to social, religious and communal expectations.
This creates a double burden for them at a time when they are trying to discover who they are and who they want to be.
This week the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, published a guide for Orthodox Jewish schools, on supporting the wellbeing of LGBT+ pupils. Produced together with KeshetUK, this is a publication all Jewish schools should embrace. It is written with great sensitivity and wisdom. It considers both the students who need our support while remaining true to Halacha.
The Chief Rabbi leads the way for all educators in how we must work actively to prevent homophobic, transphobic and biphobic bullying and provide appropriate pastoral support. The guide provides insight on how to listen, use language appropriately and care for our students so they feel supported. It helps and guides schools to ‘think ahead’ and be proactive rather than reactive on this subject. JFS is not only proud to support this initiative but will use the resource to ensure a sense of real inclusivity at school with KeshetUK.
The guide reminds us we are all created in the image of the Almighty and we all have our place in this world. As we approach Rosh Hashana, we should all question whether we truly believe this and what we can do to ensure those who we educate feel unique and valued.
It is all too easy to sweep issues of sexuality and gender identity under the carpet for the sake of communal uniformity. However, by potentially ostracising young people, not only are we not modelling good middot (character traits) but we are losing talented young people who are an asset to our community.
In turn, they lose out on the richness and spirituality that their heritage offers them and to which they are entitled. Let us resolve this new year to do better by all our young people.
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